So a while back I did a post on the sort of music I listened to while writing CITY OF STAIRS. I called it a “soundscape” because I guess I’m a 19 year old art student or something, I don’t know. But anyways, I thought I’d go ahead and do one of these for CITY OF BLADES, because that’s another book where I used very specific songs and moods to help me get inside scenes and write my way out of them.
Probably the biggest change here is that instead of a lot of Russian classical composers, BLADES has a lot more bluesy singer-songwriter music, lots of it country, especially Townes van Zandt. I guess this makes sense because BLADES takes place on an actual frontier, and Townes speaks to a lot of the fatalistic dread and regret that’s coursing through BLADES. And also there is just not that much classical about Mulaghesh.
But like STAIRS, I also take a lot of music from movies. Is that cheap? I guess, I don’t know. But I did it.
Anyways. Spoilers if you haven’t read the book.
To get into the general mood for BLADES and try and access the overall atmosphere I wanted to make, I found myself listening to a few songs quite a bit.
The first is “Rake” by Townes Van Zandt. “Rake” is gendered male (obviously) but that sense of bitter regret as an elder figure looks back on their sinful youth has a lot of application to Mulaghesh. In addition, the barren, bleak atmosphere in this song is basically Voortyashtan in a bottle.
The next is “Lion’s Roar” by First Aid Kit, which is another bluesy song full of regret. First Aid Kit is an odd little duo – Swedish girls putting this woodsy, ethereal spin on blues and country. This is one of their most aggressive songs, contorted with violent acrimony. Suitable for Mulaghesh.
CITY OF BLADES, for all its darkness and musings on war, is still intended to be a pretty action-packed, fun book – or, rather, Mulaghesh is a pretty fun protagonist. A bluesy sort of song really works for her, and I found myself drawn to “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae, a song my wife kept playing in the car on trips. If someone was to make a trailer for CITY OF BLADES, this would be the song for it: not only is the river imagery associated with death (appropriately enough), but it’s also a deeply foreboding song, with groans, moans, and sighs in the background. You feel like there’s an actual army out there in the countryside – though, for Mulaghesh herself, she needs to look seaward.
To continue that river imagery, I also found myself listening to “Lungs” by Townes quite a bit. “Seal the river at its mouth, take the water prisoner / Fill the sky with screams and cries, bathed in fiery answer” is just a hell of a line. Again, the dark, primitive, grim style of this song really suits Mulaghesh and Voortyashtan, and what she finds there.
Specific Scenes and Ideas
The Yellow March
When I was first writing CITY OF BLADES, I knew that Mulaghesh would meet up with Biswal, and what they had done during the Summer of Black Rivers would divide them – but I didn’t know what that was. Then one day I was cleaning the house, listening to music, and Ashokan Farewell came on, from Ken Burns’s The Civil War. (That series is, in my opinion, required watching for American citizens. But that’s just me.) And one thing that’s always fascinated me about the American Civil War is Sherman’s March to the Sea, when he burned half of George and South Carolina in a concerted attempt to break the spirits of the South. And was when I thought up the Yellow March.
Sherman himself is a figure I find compelling – he was fired from his job at the start of the war and almost considered insane solely because he said the Civil War would not be a quick, trifling of a war, but rather long, brutal, and bloody. His sentiments are all over CITY OF BLADES. A few of his quotes are:
“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
“Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”
“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
The City of Blades
I wanted Mulaghesh’s vision of the actual City of Blades to feel like a bad acid trip. I know if I’m ever tripping balls, I don’t want Ligeti anywhere near me.
The girl on the table
This was maybe the single most emotionally brutal scene to write. My wife was very mad at me that I did not tell her this was coming.
Queen of Grief
Nyman is an amazing composer, and this was my first entry into his work. The movie it’s from – Gattaca – is excellent (I don’t give a shit if the science is bad), and the song itself is loaded with a sense of fatalistic resignation, with the chords both repeating and seeming to methodically cascade. This piece applies greatly to the ending, where Mulaghesh and the others are trying to find their way out of what’s happened to them, to find a way forward into transformation. (This softer piano version is excellent, too.)
“Sea ports are the staging places of better things”
There’s a bruised optimism to “Skeleton” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s a sense of just beginning to overcome some recent trauma – grief, perhaps, or a bad breakup, that first morning afterwards where you’re just beginning to feel like a real person again. I think this captures Mulaghesh’s position at the end of CITY OF BLADES, this resolution to be someone different. Sigrud, of course, is emotionally ruined, and Shara is reconciling herself to the eventual death of her administration.
Everyone is looking at the future: Shara, to think about her life as a parent, and a life beyond the work that’s consumed everything she’s ever known since she was a child; Mulaghesh, resolved to becoming engaged again, and become something more than she is; and Sigrud, wondering if there’s a way forward at all.
SO WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN LISTENING TO RECENTLY
Well, since I just finished CITY OF MIRACLES – the third and final entry in THE DIVINE CITIES – I’ve been listening to a lot of things. One song in particular.
MIRACLES has a lot of editing to go, so I can’t talk about its plot with any specific detail, since those details might change. And it’s still very soon to talk about.
All I can say is that the song I have been listening to, to capture the feeling of this book, is this:
It comes out in 2017.
I’ll keep you posted when I can say more.